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We are indebted to One in Christ, Turvey, Bedfordshire, UK, for their continued excellent ecumenical work.  This article was published in One In Christ, Volume 53, no 1, in 2021.



Ruth Reardon

The Bishop and Christian Unity: an Ecumenical Vademecum, was published by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), Rome, in December 2020. It runs to 50 pages and its purpose is to encourage and assist Catholic Bishops to fulfil their ecumenical responsibilities. It was presented by Cardinal Koch, President of the PCPCU, at a press conference on 4 December 2020, and can be found on the website of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity ( ).  

The publication of the guide marks both the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Ut unum sintand the 60thanniversary of the establishment of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII. Besides being based on Vatican II’s decree on ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio (1964), and on Ut unum sint (1995)the new vademecum is also based on the Directory for the Application of the Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (PCPCU, 1993). From a canonical point of view there is nothing new in this guide: Interchurch families who search it for a change in the rules – for example, on eucharistic sharing – will be disappointed. However, the language and tone of the new guide indicates how far thinking and practice on the application of authoritative texts has moved on during the past few decades. 

The background

An earlier guide, A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism (New City Press, New York, 96 pp) was published in 2006 under the authorship of Cardinal Walter Kasper, then President of the PCPCU. This was produced in response to a request for a brief handbook or vademecum inviting those with special responsibility for Christian Unity to deepen the spiritual roots of ecumenism. The request came from the 2003 Plenary Meeting of the Council, which focused on the theme of ‘spiritual ecumenism’. In it, Cardinal Kasper offered his own stimulating experiences and the contributions of others who had shared their lived experiences of spiritual ecumenism, as a practical aid for all who have taken to heart the cause of unity among Christians. (The extensive contributions to the preparation of the handbook by Mgr Johan Bonny and Fr Don Bolen, both staff members of the PCPCU at the time, and now bishops, were acknowledged.) It is a ‘this is what can be done’ document.

This new vademecumThe Bishop and Christian Unity, also responds to a request from the members of the Pontifical Council, meeting in 2016. It is addressed directly to every Catholic Bishop, whose ‘ecumenical engagement is not an optional dimension of his ministry but a duty and an obligation’, in the words of the preface by Cardinal Koch and Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary of the PCPCU. The text had been developed by the Council’s officials in consultation with experts and relevant Vatican dicasteries, and it is published with Pope Francis’ blessing. It is in effect saying to each and every Bishop: ‘please get on with it; this is your job’ in a more forceful way than in the earlier handbook.

Both guides devote two paragraphs to mixed marriages/interchurch families and it is these that are focused on here.  In A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism ‘Mixed Marriage Families’ appear in paras. 39 and 40, under the general heading ‘Sacramental Celebrations’. In The Bishop and Christian Unity ‘Interchurch Marriages’ is the heading of para. 35, followed directly by para. 36 on ‘Sharing in Sacramental Life’, both under the general title of ‘Pastoral Ecumenism’. 

A change in terminology: from ‘mixed marriage’ to ‘interchurch marriage’

An important point to note is the change in terminology used in The Bishop and Christian Unity. So far as I know this is the first time that ‘mixed marriages’ have become ‘interchurch marriages’ in any official Roman document, and it is a real step forward. The term was coined in 1968 at the first national meeting of mixed marriage couples in England, and it was used in 1969 when the English ‘Association of Interchurch Families’ was formed. The couples AIF represented disliked the term ‘mixed marriages’ because of its ambiguity; it could apply to many kinds of mixing, including interracial and interreligious marriages. As international contacts grew, it became clear that wherever groups and associations of interchurch families appeared, they shared this feeling. Interchurch families worldwide felt that they had a particular vocation with regard to promoting Christian unity, and the terminology by which they self-identified recognised this: in English-speaking regions ‘interchurch families’, in German-speaking regions ‘konfessions verbindenende Familien’, in French-speaking regions ‘foyers mixtes interconfessionnels’, and in Italy ‘famiglie miste interconfessionali’. 

One of the specific suggestions made to the 2015 Synod on the Family by the Interchurch Families International Network was that consideration should be given to revising the terminology of ‘mixed marriage’ when it refers to the marriages between baptised Christians (see the ‘Response to the 2015 Synod on the Family from the Interchurch Families International Network’, in One in Christ, vol 49, no1, 2015, pp.142-160). The Bishops did not seem to respond at the time, but the request has now been answered favourably in this PCPCU document. Using the term is a mark of respect for the vocation of interchurch families. As a result, they become more visible within the church communities, and can give a clearer ecumenical witness. 

Bishops are advised to listen to interchurch families

Among the list of ‘Practical Recommendations’ which closes the section on ‘Pastoral Ecumenism’ in The Bishop and Christian Unity is the following: ‘To meet with and listen to the experiences of interchurch families in your diocese’ (p.33). To my knowledge this is unprecedented advice to be given officially to Bishops at world level. Interchurch families have always been eager to ‘tell their stories’ – one international conference in Scotland in 1992 had the theme ‘Listen to our story’ – but, with notable exceptions, many couples have found over the years that it was not easy to meet bishops who wanted to listen. They have been grateful to the Catholic pastors and theologians who have been willing to do so. Fr Thomas Ryan CSP, Director of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, who arranged a series of meetings with interchurch families across Canada in the late 1980s, said that he ‘had never interacted with a group of church members who were more grateful that somebody expressed interest in what they were living’ (see ‘A Canadian Association?’ in the Journal of the Association of Interchurch Families, 4, 1, January 1996, p.7).

But here it is Bishops themselves who are being advised to take the initiative. This is a pastoral recommendation that is worthy of the spirit of Amoris Laetitia; it goes beyond simple ‘pastoral care’ to something more like the ‘pastoral understanding’ that the international conference of interchurch families held in Edmonton, Canada in 2001 hoped for. It catches the spirit of the recent guidelines published by the German Bishops on eucharistic sharing in interchurch families, when the Bishops spoke of a ‘spiritual conversation’ with couples on the subject, using a phrase that St Ignatius of Loyola applied to the discernment required in deciding upon a particular course of action. Any of the German Bishops is free to apply the guidelines in the way he decides is best for his own diocese (see ‘The German Bishops and the Development of Understanding of Intercommunion’ by James Cassidy in One in Christ vol 53, no1, 2019, pp.31-45, and ‘The German Bishops’ Guidelines on Eucharistic Sharing in Interchurch Families: What’s New?’ by Ruth Reardon in vol 52, no 2, 2018, pp.339-358). One English couple suggested that a ‘friendly conversation’ would sound less formidable and more welcoming – and in fact this was what they had experienced with their own Catholic Bishop. In any case what is required is a pastoral dialogue that would start from the actual experience of real people. If this happened widely it could transform the situation of interchurch families and allow them to live out their vocation in a more open and joyful way.

Positioning of interchurch families in relation to sacramental sharing

A particular field of experience that interchurch families have long been eager to talk about with Bishops is that of eucharistic sharing. The Bishop and Christian Unity reinforces the new work done by the 2006 Handbook in positioning interchurch families firmly in the context of its section on sacramental celebrations (see ‘Spiritual Ecumenism: a vademecum from Cardinal Kasper’, in Interchurch Families: Issues and Reflections no 6, April 2007.  (  

This was a step forward from the 1993 Directory. The new text goes further. Its ‘Pastoral Ecumenism’ section is introduced by ‘Shared pastoral challenges as opportunities for ecumenism’ (32), followed by ‘Shared ministry and sharing resources’ (33) and ‘Mission and catechesis’ (34). After this commendation of shared pastoral care, ministry, catechesis and mission, comes ‘Interchurch marriages’ (35). These must not be seen as problems, since they are ‘often a privileged place where the unity of Christians is built’. However, ‘pastors cannot be indifferent to the pain of Christian division which is experienced in the context of these families, perhaps more sharply than in any other context.’

The following section on ‘Sharing in Sacramental Life’ (36) does not in fact mention interchurch families specifically, but the fact that it follows on immediately from paragraph 35 seems to link it directly with the ‘pain of Christian division’ experienced so sharply in interchurch families and laying its claim on the pastoral concern of the Bishop. It is the Bishop’s task to decide whether there is a serious need for eucharistic sharing. The Bishop is always called to exercise his ‘pastoral discernment’ in judging when exceptional sacramental sharing is appropriate because it concerns the care and the salvation of souls. He must exercise prudence to avoid causing confusion; ‘nevertheless he should bear in mind St John Paul II’s words when he wrote: “It is a source of joy to note that Catholic ministers are able, in certain particular cases, to administer the Sacraments of Eucharist, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick to Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church” (Ut unum sint, 46)’.

A strongly pastoral approach and tone

The document appeals to the pastoral heart of the Bishop. Bishops must become more aware of the deep pain that couples experience because of Christian divisions. All Christians of course need to experience the pain of division, but the intimate context of marriage – a sacrament that is a sign of the close union between Christ and the Church – means that some mixed couples who share the sacraments of baptism and marriage experience the consequences of division far more sharply than most Christians do.  

The word ‘pain’ was introduced into the Roman terminology in the 2006 Handbook following the use of the term in relation to eucharistic sharing in Cardinal Kasper’s address to interchurch families when they made an informal visit to the PCPCU in 2003. Is that pain always necessary when churches are committed to working together more closely on the road to visible unity? Bishops must not become so focused on the first principle of sacramental sharing that they overlook the second. The document quotes Unitatis Redintegratio,8. A sacrament bears witness to the unity of the Church; it is also a sharing in the means of grace. In general, therefore, sacramental sharing is limited to those in full communion. However, it is permitted for the care of souls within certain circumstances, and when this happens it is to be recognised as both desirable and commendableThe Bishop and Christian Unity stresses that the Bishop needs to exercise his discernment in weighing the claims of both these aspects of sacramental sharing. It also says that ‘it is important to stress that the bishop’s judgement about what constitutes a “grave necessity” for sacramental sharing is always a pastoral discernment, that is, it concerns the care and the salvation of souls.’ Yes, he should be prudent in avoiding confusion, nevertheless he should ponder the words of Pope John Paul II expressing his own joy that this is now possible in certain cases. There is a stress on the positive aspect of eucharistic sharing: where this can take place, it is to be desired and commended.

A focus on the pastoral needs of interchurch families in all their variety and at all stages of marriage and family life does not negate the witness of the Roman Catholic Church to the close relationship between eucharistic and ecclesial unity, but it approaches the question of eucharistic sharing from another perspective, which is equally Catholic. It is greatly to be welcomed by interchurch families and all concerned for their welfare that the focus for the Bishop has been clearly identified as the pastoral discernment of the need for eucharistic sharing in some couples and families, rather than a concentration on a checklist of canonical criteria for admission. The canonical criteria remain, but the whole tone is different, the expectations are different.

Listening to interchurch couples and families: an ecumenical process?

An earlier section of ‘Pastoral Ecumenism’ (paras 32-37) indicates that ‘shared pastoral challenges are opportunities for ecumenism’, and this is taken up in paragraph 35 on ‘Interchurch marriages’. ‘Mutual meetings of Christian pastors, aimed at supporting and upholding these marriages, can be an excellent ground for ecumenical collaboration … Local agreements on these pressing pastoral concerns are therefore to be encouraged.’ It follows then that listening to the concrete experiences of interchurch couples in the context of meeting with other church leaders can be a fruitful form of ecumenical collaboration for Catholic Bishops. 

‘Listening’ may not be so easy in a time of pandemic. But where Christians really want to talk to one another, they have been finding in recent months that although not the same as face-to-face meetings, virtual meetings via Zoom can be very fruitful. Three recent examples are relevant to our topic here.

EWARC: the first example

It was in 2007 that the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM) produced its first report: Growing Together in Unity and Mission (GTUM). IARCCUM is concerned with joint action and common witness; its emphasis is on practical and pastoral ecumenism, as distinct from the focus of the older ARCIC (Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission) on theological dialogue. Both bodies now function in parallel at international level. The national bodies that follow up the work of ARCIC were expected to do the same for IARCCUM, and thus it was that the English Anglican-Roman Catholic Committee (‘English ARC’), in its 5-year working period from 2013 to 2017, studied GTUM in the context of the English situation, and produced its own report: Walking Together: Mapping Anglican-Roman Catholic Relations 2018. It was published in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2018, introduced by the Anglican and Roman Catholic Co-Chairs, Bishop Tim Thornton and Archbishop Bernard Longley. As a result of its mapping exercise of the way in which Anglicans and Roman Catholics were working together at diocesan and parish level, and in line with the proposals of GTUM, it made six practical proposals at the end of its report. In first place was the suggestion that Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops together might reflect on ways in which they do and could increasingly ‘support interchurch families, especially by ensuring that all canonical provisions and pastoral opportunities are reflected in parish life’ (see ‘An English ARC Report, seen from an Interchurch Family Perspective’ in One in Christ, vol 52, no 1, 2018, pp.170-175). 

EARC’s successor became EWARC (English and Welsh Anglican-Roman Catholic Committee).  Doral Hayes, the AIF Executive Development Officer, and also Ecumenical Facilitator for Hertfordshire, was appointed as a member of the Anglican team. The first meeting of the quinquennial took place in the summer of 2018. It takes some time for a new committee to sort out its priorities, but EWARC decided to take up the challenge presented to it and work on promoting the joint pastoral care of interchurch families. At a meeting of EWARC in mid-March 2019, Doral was asked to introduce the subject as a lead into a general discussion. She reiterated an invitation already made by the AIF Chair of Trustees, Paul Docherty, to members of EWARC to an AIF weekend in October 2020.

The Bishop and Christian Unity had not yet been published, with its proposal that bishops should listen to interchurch families, nor had it spoken of the value of ‘shared pastoral challenges’ as ‘opportunities for ecumenism’. But EWARC members anticipated it by deciding that they wanted to meet and listen to interchurch families themselves. An overnight meeting was planned between representatives of EWARC and the Association of Interchurch Families for the autumn of 2020. It was disappointing that a face-to-face meeting could not be held in view of Covid 19 restrictions, but a zoom day event was organised on October 10th and was felt to be very worthwhile. Over fifty members of AIF were present. The Anglican co-chair of EWARC, Bishop Christopher Foster of Portsmouth, was there all day except when he had to go off to two different ordinations which were delayed because church buildings could not be used until Covid 19 regulations began to be relaxed. In addition to Bishop Christopher and Doral, there was another Anglican member of EWARC and two more who proposed to ‘drop in’ as other commitments allowed. Roman Catholic members included Canon Tony Churchill, the co-secretary of EWARC, Fr Jan Nowotnik, the new Roman Catholic National Ecumenical Officer and Secretary to the Catholic Bishops’ Department for Dialogue and Unity, and two more. Another member of EWARC present was the Baptist consultant-observer Dr Paul Goodliff, general secretary of Churches Together in England.

There were mutual introductions on the work of EWARC and interchurch family history, but the centrepiece was when interchurch families were divided into small groups to ‘tell their stories’, each group with an EWARC member to lead and ask questions. EWARC wanted to understand current pastoral needs and what would most help interchurch families to fulfil their vocation. These leaders reported back in a plenary session chaired by the Bishop of Portsmouth on what they had heard from their groups, when he returned from his first ordination visit, and there was a chance for comments and questions before he left again for his second ordination service.

Paul Docherty’s preliminary report on the day was discussed by the AIF Advisory Council in November; the final version with suggestions for ways in which both EWARC and AIF might influence the provision of pastoral care given to interchurch families has been forwarded to EWARC.  AIF talked and EWARC listened. Many of the themes raised – including eucharistic sharing – concerned practice in the Roman Catholic Church, but questions were also raised about Anglican practice. As one EWARC member commented: ‘The group was not a “moan-fest” but faithful Christians who love their churches, taking stock of reality. Much love was also expressed, both for the church and for particular priests’. One of the practical outcomes of this conversation is a project (which is already in hand) to revise the booklet Churches Together in Marriage: Pastoral Care of Interchurch Families’, published by Churches Together in England and CYTUN (Churches Together in Wales) in 1994, and to use the new material on the web-sites of Churches Together in England and the Association of Interchurch Families.

The NBCW leaflet: the second example

EWARC had practised listening to interchurch families in an ecumenical context, with Anglicans and Roman Catholics together, and a Baptist participant observer. The stimulus had come from IARCCUM, an international body, while the discussion had focused mainly on the local situation in England. The leaflet on eucharistic sharing launched at a webinar on 17 May 2021 by the National Board of Catholic Women (NBCW), a consultative Body to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, also focused on the local situation, but it was prepared in a Catholic context.

An earlier version of the NBCW leaflet had been published in the year 2000, entitled: May my husband (a Christian from another Church) ever receive Holy Communion with me? How? In 1998 the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, together with the Catholic Bishops of Scotland and Ireland, had published One Bread One Body (OBOB), applying the norms of the 1993 Ecumenical Directory from Rome to the territory of the three episcopal conferences. AIF had rejoiced that, for the first time, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales as a body had recognised in One Bread One Body that it was canonically possible for other Christians to be admitted to communion in the Roman Catholic Church alongside their Catholic spouses, in certain cases and under certain conditions. The members were, however, saddened that this permission was apparently limited to ‘unique occasions’, a condition that was not imposed by the 1993 Directory from Rome. The Association was studying One Bread One Body in detail (see One Bread One Body: a Commentary from an Interchurch Family Point of View by Ruth Reardon in One in Christ, vol 35, no 2, 1999, pp 109-130) when it was asked by NBCW to appoint a woman to its Ecumenical Standing Committee. The Committee was concerned that the positive provisions of OBOB were so little known at parish level and were in the process of preparing a leaflet to help inform Catholics of what was possible under the terms of OBOB. A member of AIF was duly appointed, and May my husband? appeared in the following year. AIF helped with the leaflet’s publicity and distribution. 

So when, in 2016, the newly appointed secretary of the Department for Dialogue and Unity of the Catholic Bishops Conferencesuggested to NBCW that a revision of the May my husband? leaflet, bringing its language up-to-date and making it more user-friendly, could be timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of OBOB, it seemed natural for the Committee (now the Ecumenical and Interfaith Committee of NBCW) to contact AIF about the project. It was agreed that AIF would take on a consultative role, but that the document would be the responsibility of NBCW as a Consultative Body to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference. In fact, the AIF representative, Helen Mayles, who joined the Committee in 2016, did a great deal of work on the leaflet. Personally, I was doubtful whether a revision of the original leaflet would yield much fruit, since the norms of One Bread One Body were still in force, but how wrong I was.

The new version is entitled: Who can receive Communion with us? When may Christians from other Churches ask to receive Holy Communion in a Catholic Church? It states its credentials: ‘This leaflet has been written by the National Board of Catholic Women in consultation with the Association of Interchurch Families, the Department for Dialogue and Unity of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome. It is based on One Bread One Body, the Bishops’ Conference teaching document on the Eucharist in the life of the Church.’ The process of revision took about five years, was presented twice to the Catholic Bishop’s conference, had input from the Pontifical Council in Rome and went through seemingly endless drafts, but the result is well worth it. The text is still bounded by the norms of One Bread One Body, but its tone is very different from that of the 2000 version. As an Anglican member of AIF wrote: ‘I welcome the tone and especially the ‘expectation’ – it is written in loving joyful expectation of requests being made AND GRANTED. For those of us who have gone through a painful occasion of asking and being refused, to read a loving explanation of the rules predicated on the expectation that the answer will normally be ‘yes’, gives me hope. I welcome seeing more light and love in the process than I did when I first read One Bread One Body and felt that the last few pages seemed to be trying to close and even bolt/lock that door. We have come a long way and I hope the Eucharist will be food for all for the onward journey.’  

The revision of the leaflet had got people talking again about eucharistic sharing in interchurch families and realising how long it was since One Bread One Body appeared. Much had happened during those two decades, including the detailed work done by the German Bishops’ Conference on the subject, and the response of Pope Francis to the Lutheran wife who questioned him in 2015. The leaflet itself could not go further than OBOB, but the webinar on 17 May 2021 to launch it, organised by NBCW, allowed for questions and discussion on possible future developments. It began with a theological perspective introduced by Dr Clare Watkins, Reader in Practical Theology at the University of Roehampton, based on the theology of OBOB. She covered an immense agenda in 15 minutes in a most stimulating manner: the purpose and shape of One Bread One Body; ‘real presence’ and ‘sacrifice’; ‘communion’ in the Eucharist and in the Church; the theology of the domestic church and an implicit theology of discernment – a practice on which so much depends in the living out of the norms; also, the apparent tensions between normally disallowed practices being allowed in exceptional circumstances. There were two additional points: the tensions between dogmatic positions and pastoral concerns, and the question of who can give permission: does it always have to be a bishop, or can the parish priest adapt the norms as pastoral situations arise?

Then the formula changed: rather than asking Bishop Paul Hendricks, Auxiliary Bishop of Southwark and member of the Department for Dialogue and Unity, to give another talk, Janet Ward, the Convenor of the NBCW Ecumenical and Interfaith Committee, put questions to him. He had been pleased to become involved with the preparation of the NBCW leaflet at a late stage, and paid tribute to Canon John O’Toole who had initiated the work and had done much to support it until his term as secretary of the Department for Dialogue and Unity of the Catholic Bishops Conference came to an end at the beginning of 2020. It was not a document of the Bishops’ Conference as such, but the bishops had seen it at various stages of the work. Asked about some of the issues raised, Bishop Hendricks was particularly interested in the question of the discernment involved and who should undertake the discernment. To the question of what would happen if a non-Catholic came forward for communion, he said that a celebrant would not normally refuse unless grave public scandal was involved. A similar method of question-and-answer was used to draw out the story of a Catholic/Anglican couple, Helen and Philip Mayles, members of the Association of Interchurch Families. They were interviewed by Janet Ward, and this proved to be a good way of listening to their testimony, described by the Catholic husband of an Anglican wife who had joined the webinar from Australia, as speaking ‘very gently from the depths of their experience and heart’. The text of their interview is appended to this article. 

The lively discussion that followed the three presentations could have gone on for so much longer.  ‘This is all part of a process,’ said Janet Ward, and it is to be hoped that this webinar will be followed up, so that interchurch families who experience a need to share communion may be enabled openly and confidently to ‘speak with the Lord and go forward’, (as Pope Francis has encouraged them to do), surrounded by the joy of their church communities and for the good of the whole Church. 

 An Anglican Centre in Rome webinar: the third example

The third example of bishops, with others, listening to interchurch families comes from an international and Anglican context. Only a few days after the launch of the NBCW leaflet, on 20 May 2021, the Anglican Centre in Rome (ACR) offered a webinar entitled ‘Walking Together: the gift of interchurch marriages’.  A few years ago, the ACR publicised interchurch families as a topic for one of its week-long Rome courses, but no details were given and the proposal was not followed up, then Covid 19 intervened. However, by hosting a webinar in the context of the pandemic the ACR was able to bring together online more interchurch couples from around the world than it would have gathered for a week in Rome. The webinar aimed at highlighting the journey and experience of married couples coming from the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, exploring the many blessings of Anglican-Catholic marriages, and showing how they have addressed the differences of their respective spiritual journeys and how they have been challenged as couples and as families. 

There were several Anglican Bishops at the seminar, including its Director, Archbishop Ian Ernest, former Bishop of Mauritius and Primate of the Indian Ocean, who welcomed the participants. He had become Director in 2019, the same year that Bishop Michael Burrows, Bishop of Cashel, Ireland, had taken over as Chair of the Governors of the ACR. He too took part in the webinar, as did Bishop David Hamid, Bishop in Europe. Their role was to ask questions and make comments; the main part of the session was given over to the stories of interchurch families themselves.  

After a meditation by Canon Edgar Ruddock to set the scene, the first speaker was Dr Ken Dunn, formerly an experimental physicist at Queen’s University of Belfast and now a Visiting Professor to the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. From 1984 to 2020 he was a member of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland. He was a founder-member of the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA) and its first chair (1974-78). He has chaired the Association again from 2006 to date. When he and his future Catholic wife, Maura, first went out together, the troubles had just begun, and times were hard for mixed marriages. Happily, the ecumenical centre at Corrymeela put on a weekend for mixed marriages, and for Ken and Maura it was like ‘coming in from the cold’. NIMMA soon came to birth, and Ken was well placed to give a brief history of this body, unique among interchurch family associations in having a divided community to contend with, as well as a divided Church.

A couple living in Ireland who spoke of their marriage included an Anglican priest. Anne was ordained in the Church of England but then moved to the Church of Ireland where she had served in two parishes and in chaplaincies. She and her husband, Alan, had met at Taizé when they were both working there as volunteers. In the case of another couple from the Republic of Ireland it was the husband, Phil, who was the Anglican priest. He had met his future Catholic wife, Claire, when he was preparing for ordination and after she had left a missionary community with whom she had worked as a religious sister for twelve years. They had both been welcomed into the community of the other and had been able to share communion from the beginning. The important thing was that their marriage was Christ-centred, said Claire, and everything else flowed from that – living with both traditions seemed quite natural. Living with differences is enriching, and they would never want to give them up, although there are things in the Anglican Church, such as women priests and married priests, that she would like to see in her own Church.  

The oldest couple who spoke came from Mauritius; they had been married for 56 years and had children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They had met when Robert, the Catholic, came to study in England. Valerie’s family had been much involved in the life of the local Anglican parish church, but she had been educated at an Ursuline convent school in the area, so she was ‘well-versed in Catholic teaching’ by the time she left home to train as a nurse in London. The couple met all the discouragement that was normal for ‘mixed marriages’ in those days, but persevered. Valerie had signed the promise about the Catholic upbringing of the children that was required and had no regrets. She had been allowed to receive communion when she had requested it on family occasions. Robert commented that the only difference in their worship seemed to be that Valerie’s was in English and his in French. 

This, and other interventions, raised the subject of interchurch marriages that were also inter-cultural. The question of identity came up, as did eucharistic sharing, when quite different experiences were mentioned. The variety of couples and situations was striking, and the interchurch couples who asked questions and made comments were not limited to those where Catholics were married to members of the Anglican Communion. The question of the relationship of interchurch families to official ecumenical dialogues came up: did they think these top-level meetings were relevant to them? did they feel they were problems to the churches? Interestingly, Jamie Hawkey, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey and chair of the UK Development Committee of the ACR, referred to this during another webinar a little later, meeting to discuss the topic of the ‘Malines Conversations 100 years on’. He noted that one couple was grateful for the dialogues, but another thought they should start with the experience of people on the ground rather than with high-level theology.’It is not a binary choice’, said Canon Hawkey, stressing that we need communication between those from above and those from below. Bishop Michael Burrows had made this point at the end of the interchurch family webinar, saying that the ACR wants to make a bridge between formal theological dialogue and pastoral reality. That would indeed be welcome to interchurch families.   

The ACR is well placed to undertake this work. It has been friendly and generous to interchurch families in the past. When the International Network of Interchurch Families held its Rome Gathering in 2003 all the A-RC couples who attended it were invited to tea at the Centre one afternoon, which was much appreciated. And when a small representative group returned to Rome two years later for an informal meeting with the PCPCU, the ACR offered kind hospitality and practical assistance in providing a meeting place for the larger group that came to help plan and follow-up that meeting. The webinar, however, is an entirely new initiative, and a good beginning. There is a great deal more to tease out and unpack on ‘the gift of interchurch families’ – and how they are a challenge, as well as a gift, to the churches.

Appendix: An interview with a Catholic-Anglican couple, from the webinar organised by the National Board of Catholic Women, 17 May 2021

Janet    We are now going to ask Helen and Philip Mayles to share some of their experiences. Can I invite you first of all to tell us a bit about yourselves?

Helen   I am a Roman Catholic, my mother is Spanish, my English father was brought up an Anglican and became a Catholic soon after his marriage.  

Philip   Curiously, I was also born into an interchurch marriage.  My mother was a catholic and my father was the son of a Methodist minister.  Although I was baptised in a Catholic church, I was brought up as an Anglican. 

Helen   We have been married for 40 years. We have two grown up daughters, both of whom are very involved in their Christian communities.

Philip   We have been determined throughout our marriage to take as active a part in each other’s church as possible and have usually gone to both churches each Sunday.  We see our two churches in a similar way as we see our two parental families and we want to be fully part of both of them.

Janet   When you first met how did you see the difficulties associated with being members of different church traditions?

Philip   With a Catholic mother and Protestant father I have always had an interest in the theological differences between our churches.  When we were engaged, I went for instruction with a priest at Westminster Cathedral.  I found that we share almost all of the fundamental beliefs, but the priest told me that I should not become a Catholic just to be able to receive communion with my wife.  In the end I decided to remain an Anglican.

Helen   There were tensions at times as we discussed our beliefs, but I learnt to value the extra insights that I experienced as I accompanied Philip to the Anglican church.  I believe that God was calling me to marry Philip, for many reasons, but one of the most important ones was that he is a committed Christian of another denomination.

Philip   We both wanted to be married within the context of the Eucharist, that is, to have a nuptial Mass.  At the time of our marriage in 1980 it was apparently not possible for us both to receive communion, but the idea of only one of us receiving communion seemed like a complete contradiction to the rest of the wedding service.

Helen   We concluded that the only way to solve this dilemma was for the priest to be the only communicant – which strangely may have seemed more normal now with Covid restrictions!

Janet   How were things after you were married?

Helen   We joined the Association of Interchurch Families shortly after the birth of our first daughter.  The support of this group of committed Christian couples and of the priests and ministers of all denominations that we have met through the Association has been invaluable.  In the 1980’s, the late Fr John Coventry, then recently retired as Jesuit Provincial, enabled us to consider the issues and then to receive communion together at the Masses celebrated with members of the association.

Philip   These two occasions a year were particularly special as the whole group of Christians were able to be fully part of the celebration of the Eucharist and were often quite emotional.

Helen   Our children were both baptised in a Catholic church with our Anglican parish priest also taking part in the service. They went to a nearby Catholic school and the crunch came when we asked our parish priest if Philip could receive communion at our eldest daughter’s first holy communion, and the pries replied it was only possible with the Bishop’s permission.  I knew one of the auxiliary bishops quite well and he invited us to tea.  We were astonished when he told us that First Holy Communion was not an occasion of serious need as it was really a social occasion and added that the diocesan bishop had never given such permission.  As a young married couple, we were saddened to see that a Bishop, with whom I was otherwise quite friendly, completely misunderstood the deep pain that we felt Sunday after Sunday as we were separated at the Eucharist.  And worse than that, how the refusal to allow their Daddy to receive Communion at their first communion was an effective way of undermining my efforts to bring up the children in the Catholic tradition.  

Philip   The deep hurt in our family was eventually lessened by us going to a priest in a neighbouring parish who said to me “of course you must receive communion” and the children made their first communion in his parish.

Janet   Has One Bread One Body made your life together easier?

Helen   It confirmed the position that the Catholic Church did not insist that you had to be a Catholic in order to receive Communion at Mass.  However, only being able to approach our parish priest on ‘unique occasions of joy and sorrow in the life of our family’, was a long way from what we had hoped for.  We did obtain permission to receive together on occasions such as Anniversaries, Easter and Christmas.

Philip   I have never forgotten the first time at Midnight Mass at Christmas in our parish, when the Eucharistic minister who administered the Chalice made a point of coming to us after Mass and said how really pleased she was to be able to give me communion.  

Helen   We also received a much warmer reception from our bishops:  Philip wrote to Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, who was then bishop of Arundel and Brighton, to ask permission for Philip to receive communion at my father’s funeral.

Philip   We received a lovely letter back in which he said that I would be welcome to receive communion at any funeral in his diocese. (He also encouraged us to approach our own parish priest who was known to him.)

Helen   Most of my father’s family are Anglican, and the priest celebrating the funeral Mass realised that some of them would want to receive communion also.  He asked me to quietly let them know that he would not refuse them Communion at the altar, and this gave them great joy.   That funeral Mass was a time of special grace that brought together the extended family.

Philip   Around the same time we were invited to attend a diocesan Mass in celebration of Marriage.  It would have felt rather strange to be celebrating our marriage and not to receive communion together.  I therefore wrote to the bishop to ask for permission.  It was uplifting to come home to find a friendly message on our answerphone saying that I would be most welcome.

Helen   Another memorable occasion was the confirmation of our two daughters, in their late teens. Our parish priest was given permission to administer the confirmation.  Our Anglican priest at the time was a retired bishop and it was agreed that he would be the children’s sponsor…

Philip   … but wearing the full regalia of an Anglican bishop – this was as close as we could get to a joint confirmation.  The confirmation took place during Saturday evening Mass with many parishioners from both our congregations present.

Helen   Our parish priest had agreed to give Philip communion but was concerned about giving communion to the bishop as well.  When it came to the moment he was spontaneously moved to do so.

Philip   Some time later, we were attending an interchurch family conference in Canada with Bishop (now Cardinal) Marc Ouellet.  In a small group, our daughter had told him about her confirmation and he later related this to the plenary and was momentarily lost for words with emotion.

Janet   How do you see things 20 years after the publication of One Bread One Body?

Helen   It would be easier now to obtain permission to receive Communion at one’s wedding or a child’s 1st communion.  But there are still many who do not know they can ask, and others who would like to ask for permission more often but can’t face a ‘no’.

Philip   It has been pointed out to me that it would be much easier if I were to become a Catholic. However, I am still more comfortable worshipping in the Anglican tradition and as St John Paul II said ‘we live in our marriage the path to Christian unity’.  When we are able to receive communion together it is always a special occasion for us.  When we cannot receive together it is as hurtful as it would be not to be able to join in a family meal in my parents-in-law’s house.  It sometimes feels as though we are Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet striving to celebrate our love in the context of their feuding families.  Perhaps the Duke will turn up one day soon and will encourage them to bury their differences!!  We long for the day when our churches are able to see that they really ARE one as Christ prayed.  

Helen   The churches may be divided but we were both baptised into Christ, we have become one flesh through the sacrament of marriage and we need the gift of the Eucharist to nourish our Faith, to sustain us in our Christian life together, and to help us witness to the one Body of Christ.  

Philip   We live in hope that One Bread One Body is not the final word.  A few years ago a Lutheran woman approached Pope Francis and asked him when she could receive communion with her husband. His reply was that he could not give her permission but encouraged her to “talk to The Lord and go forward”, stressing that there is One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. 

Helen   The leaflet just published seeks to put the norms of One Bread One Body in a style that is more approachable and written with empathy.  We ask the Bishops of England and Wales to consider revising the norms in One Bread One Body, and to address, for example, the serious need of married couples to receive communion together on an ongoing basis. There are also spontaneous needs that do not allow time for a formal request: the serious need of small ecumenical groups, whether it be in a Chapel of Unity, or on a pilgrimage or retreat, to express their unity by celebrating the Eucharist and receiving communion together. 




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